The Roman senate had much of the real power during the time of the republic. The senate was made up of 300 powerful Roman men (although it was increased to as many as 900 in the later years of the republic). Many Roman senators had held another high office before being appointed to the senate. In fact, once a Roman had served in a high office in the republic (consul, praetor, etc…), he was made a senator for life.
Most members of the Roman Senate were patricians or members of wealthy landowning families. New senators were selected by other high ranking officials in the republic like consuls or tribunes. Senators were not elected by the people. They were more like what we would call the “good ole boys” club today – basically a group of noble or very wealthy men with lots of connections. The House of Lords in Britain would be similar also, although the House of Lords no longer has much real political power. The Roman Senate had plenty of power, especially during the republic.
Other senators obtained office by being elected or appointed to another office. So, for example, the high priest of Rome, the pontifex maximus, automatically had a seat in the senate. These senators did not have an official vote in the senate, but they could participate in the debate and support one side or the other on a particular issue.
Members of the Roman senate were not supposed to own or run businesses while they were in office. This regulation was often ignored and rarely enforced. Senators were also sometimes allowed special treatment (seating preference, etc.) at feasts, the circus, plays, or other important events or performances. Being a senator in ancient Rome was an honor, and with that honor came a lot of influence.
High ranking officials (magistrates) in the government – consuls, dictators, praetors – could call a meeting of the senate for just about any purpose. During a senate meeting, magistrates could propose legislation. The senators would then debate the law and send it to the populus – the people in the assemblies – for a vote.
Duties of the republican Roman senate included:
• Public welfare (taking care of the people)
• Overseeing Roman religious law
• Debating and preparing legislation (laws) to be reviewed by the assembly – but – the senate, by itself, could not make law
• Managing Rome’s affairs with other nations
• Regulating the taxing and spending of money